Dear Rabbi Fried,
Gefilte fish is one of those things that has become synonymous with Jewish life, and I was just wondering if there’s anything more to it than meets the eye?
Many Jewish foods, like other Jewish customs, at times carry deeper meanings within them.
Gefilte fish, besides its great taste, (for those who think so), is not different. It originated, and remains, a traditional Shabbos food, although many enjoy it during the week, as well.
The reason for this has been given, that the Torah prohibits 39 categories of productive activity on the Shabbos. One of those activities is called borer or “choosing.” This means, in a nutshell, that one should not render a mixture of edible and inedible objects to be edible by extracting the inedible from the edible. For example (since we’re explaining this in a nutshell), if one has a bowl of cracked nuts and their shells and she wants to eat the nuts, she should not take the “bad from the good,” the shells from the nuts, rather extract the nuts from the shells.
Another common example, far more difficult, is eating fish with bones. One should not extract the tiny bones from the fish, as that would constitute “bad from the good.” Rather, one should extract the fish from the bones. This can often be quite a chore, and not always so successful. What’s more, because of its complexity, even a well-meaning Jew can inadvertently or accidentally do it the wrong way.
In order to avoid the whole issue, it became customary in some places to grind up the entire fish very finely, and, voila, you have gefilte fish. It was so successful and avoided so many issues that it caught on and, before you knew it, everyone was eating gefilte fish.
(The above explanation is attributed to the renowned Lithuanian sage R’ Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, known by the name Beis Halevi, 1820-1892.)
Take this as an example, whenever you see a widespread Jewish custom, to look deeper. There’s bound to be a hidden pot of gold or hidden treasure when you dig deeply enough.
Dear Rabbi Fried,